Vol 16. 3rd Edition
151 Wing to Murmansk
by Wing Commander (Tim)
John Francis Durham Elkington CB, DFC & Bar
After Hitler’s failure to dominate the skies over Britain in 1940, he turned his attention to Russia with Operation Barbarossa on 22 June 1941. Stalin was taken by surprise and, with his air force immediately crippled, he sought an alliance with Churchill against their common enemy. In late July, Churchill agreed that “we are also studying as a further development the basing of some British fighter air squadrons on Murmansk... some (aircraft) of which could be flown off carriers and others crated.”
As a consequence, Operation Dervish, the first arctic convoy, was conceived. On 12 August, seven commercial vessels sailed from Liverpool with the Union-Castle liner, SS Llanstephan Castle, carrying some 550 men of RAF 151 Wing, comprising 81 and 134 Squadrons, and 15 crated Hurricanes for assembly. There was also a convoy of eleven Royal Navy warships which included the fleet carrier HMS Argus with 24 Hurricanes ready to fly. The role of 151 Wing was to train the Russians in flying and maintaining the ’planes, then hand them over and return home. This was the first part of an agreement which would ultimately provide them with more than 3,000 aircraft throughout the war.
'Tim' Elkington was a pilot with 134 Squadron
I left the RAF College at Cranwell for No 1 Squadron, Northolt, in July 1940, having had elementary training on biplanes - Hawker Harts and Hinds. Then after 15 hours’ familiarisation on the Hurricane before going operational, I was on patrol over the Channel.
A few months later, having survived the Battle of Britain with only one unfortunate incident, I was enjoying life with 601 Squadron at Manston - interception patrols, search and rescue escort, and later, sweeps over France. Too good to last, and in July 1941 came a posting for overseas. At Leconfield on 29 July speculation was ended: we - the re-formed 81 and 134 Squadrons - were to fly off an aircraft carrier into Russia.
Aboard HMS Argus on 18 August, the First Sea Lord gave a briefing informing us that we, as 151 Wing, had been promised by Churchill in response to Stalin’s demands for support. Our role was to be “the defence of the naval base of Murmansk and co-operation with the Soviet forces in the Murmansk area”. We were to instruct the Soviet authorities in the operation and maintenance of our aircraft and ground equipment, which was then to be handed over to them.
And so it was that we became part of the first ever convoy to Russia, together with merchantmen carrying the rest of the Wing and crated Hurricanes, escorted by HMS Victorious, Shropshire, Punjabi, Electra, Somali and Matabele.
Whilst in Scapa Flow outbound from 20 August, we received typical naval hospitality on several of the ships anchored there. Mindful of events a few months later, it is painful to reflect on those present - HMS Prince of Wales, Repulse, King George V, Victorious, Furious, Malaya, Sheffield and London.
On 30 August, we finally sailed for Iceland, together with a convoy for North America, with Sunderland and Catalina escorts. For a few days we were down to 7 knots in thick fog. On 3 September, the weather cleared and I have a note that Martlets from Victorious ‘got’ a Dornier Do17. One Fulmar was lost in the engagement. There were more days of thick fog.
Then came the day for flying off - 7 September. Thankfully, the fog lifted and we re-read our instructions. Although Hurricanes had been flown off before, it looked like being a close call. Flights of six aircraft were to be flown off at a time. The Hurricane was 31 ft long, so two lines of three aircraft would take at least 65 ft. The flight deck was 470 ft. The unstick distance of the Hurricane was
396 ft, assuming wind over the deck of 22 knots. Given that we had only just left a fogbank, it seemed unlikely that there would be significant natural wind, so it remained for Argus to sail flat out at 20.75 knots, leaving the difference to the Gods! In fact, one of the first aircraft hit the accelerator ramp in the bow and had to belly land in Russia.
We were airborne by 0600 hours and, because our compasses were unreliable in that area, some 200 miles north of Murmansk, we had to set course by passing over the carrier, then a positioned destroyer, and keep going.
After over-flying miles of desolate tundra, we landed at Vaenga, a vast expanse of pot-holed sand which later became a soggy mess. Breakfast, however, was more welcoming - caviar, smoked salmon, Finnish ham, wine and champagne. The ensuing diet is well documented in Hubert Griffith’s book, RAF in Russia.
The weather was not helpful. Some days were balmy - but so many were unflyable. In the first month, we were unfortunate, as a squadron, to miss out on engagement with the enemy. Apart from reconnaissance, our first real work did not come until 17 September, with three patrols on that day over the front line. Even then we saw nothing but flak, directed both at us and the bombers we were escorting. A few days later, close to Petsamo, one Petlyakov Pe2 was hit and crashed in flames after the crew had jettisoned their bombs and bailed out. Their bombs came close to hitting the ships that were firing.
October opened with attacks on our airfield. No advanced warning system existed. On the first occasion, some 20 Ju88s dropped their load and we took off to intercept through a hail of bullets, dodging the bomb craters. One 81 Sqn pilot, whose engine was stopped by a blast on take-off, was then blown off the wing by another blast. Of 134 Squadron, I was first away and managed to catch up with them at 7,000 ft. My No 2 joined me and we damaged one Ju88 which later failed to reach home. The weather was now closing in and our efforts were devoted more to the conversion of the Russian pilots, who seemed oblivious of fog, snow and ice, and the instruction of their technicians. We watched with disbelief as a protégé attempted his third approach in dense fog. Came the time for return home, and the most testing time of the expedition, for me at least, began.
On 16 November, I was put in charge of an advance party of seven officers and 60 airmen, which I had to lead in deep snow, in virtual night, down the 10 miles or so of treacherous track to Rosta oiling jetty. We knew when we reached our destination, at 5.00 pm, when all our kit became black with oil. Our only casualty was one airman with a broken arm.
We waited there six hours for the fleet minesweepers we had to board for the voyage to Archangel - HMS Hussar, in our case, HMS Gossamer and Speedy, only to find that they had docked at a different jetty. (If anything suggests that we had a tough assignment, one should read their sea logs!) Eventually bed, without food for 14 hours, at 2.00 am.
Next day, sailed up to Polyarny and a drink on board the submarine Seawolf before she left on patrol. Transferring to an icebreaker, captained by a very large lady, we struggled through 6" deep ice for the last 20 miles into Archangel. We were passed by one merchantman loaded with crated Hurricanes and tanks. On the icebreaker, I made the acquaintance of General Gromov - the pre-war long distance flyer.
On 24 November, we transferred to MV Empire Baffin, a 10,000 ton cargo ship. Despite the icebreakers, moving yards at a time, it was not until four days later that we were steaming past the Gorodetski light and into the open sea. We were held to 7.5 knots for the Russian boats with us - their first convoy to the UK. It was only then that we found the two Estonian stowaways who had crossed the ice at night to board us.
HMS Kenya joined us on the 29th, with most of the Wing personnel on board. The following day, we had to heave to in gales and heavy seas. A lifeboat was washed away, and slag ballast was shifting on the deck. We had to rope ourselves into our bunks at night, with no chance of sleep. Everything was heavy with frozen spray which had to be constantly chipped off with shovels. We were sleeping in our clothes in case we had to get Vic Berg to the lifeboats. Vic, one of our Flight Commanders, was in full plaster following a terrible crash in which two airmen died. On 1 December, we were attacked by a U-boat. The destroyers depth charged - thankfully no casualties, but an outgoing convoy later lost several ships. Again, we had to help the crew to relocate the shifting ballast.
Three days later, our engines cut out with propellers racing in the heavy seas, and our steering gear was damaged. Still semi-dusk all day, and several mines were seen - one uncomfortably close.
(The DVD, Hurricanes to Murmansk, gives an idea, however brief, of the conditions encountered later by so many for so long.)
“Of all the convoy routes of the Second World War, the most dangerous was the Arctic course, followed by ships carrying supplies to the Russian ports of Murmansk and Archangel. Forced to follow the coast line of Nazi-occupied Norway, the convoys were not only threatened by submarines but subject to devastating attacks by land-based aircraft, submarines and surface vessels from Norwegian ports. These hazards were compounded by the brutal and often unpredictable weather. Finally, throughout the Arctic summer, these convoys were forced to tread their way north fully exposed in 24 hours of daylight.”
We were hugely fortunate to have sailed both ways unscathed, before the enemy took the Arctic convoys more seriously.
After passing the breathtaking scenery of Iceland, on 16 December we finally arrived back in Scotland and home!!
Material Copyright © Wartime News.
A DVD, Hurricanes to Murmansk - The story of RAF 151 Wing, is available from Atoll Productions: www.atollproductions.co.uk